When talking about strength and wellness, you don’t hear a lot about nerves. You might be told that heavy lifting “jacks up” your central nervous system, but you don’t hear much about how you can manipulate your autonomic nervous system to improve your daily wellbeing and your workout recovery.
But you can.
Why This Matters
We don’t want to bore you with an anatomy lecture, it’s important to just learn these two terms: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
Put simply, the sympathetic nervous system is the “fight or flight” arm of the nervous system and the parasympathetic is the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” side. When we’re in a sympathetic state we’re stressed, ready for action. It’s a great state to be in when need some manic energy to work out or meet a deadline, but not so much during your day to day life.
It’s widely acknowledged that modern life has our system in a sympathetic, anxious, excited state way more often than it should be, which raises our risk of heart disease and cardiac mortality — we’re talking about chronic stress, after all. We should be spending the bulk of our time in a parasympathetic state, which is when the body is truly recovering and at ease.
“Stress is a necessity for optimal health and function, however acute and chronic stress differ,” says Joseph LaVacca, DPT, CFSC, FMT-C, SFMA, an orthopedic physical therapist based in New York City. “Chronic stress will decrease our response to cortisol having multiple impacts including increased inflammatory markers in the bloodstream.”
This is why it’s important to learn how to stimulate your vagus nerve, which activates the parasympathetic system. Sometimes this is done in clinical settings with electrical stimulation, as this can help treat depression and epilepsy. Here are some more low-tech ways you can do at home.
1) Deep Breathing
According to LaVacca, the easiest way to stimulate the vagus nerve is slow, deep breathing.
“This allows for improved oxygen transport as well as adaptation to high blood pressure,” he says.
Deep, slow breathing is indeed a kind of meditation, but breath counting, reciting a mantra, chanting, and repetitive prayers like the Catholic rosary have a marked effect on heart rate variability and the parasympathetic nervous system.
“The vagus nerve is comprised of ascending and descending pathways to the brain, so some might say it is not as much a state of the heart as it is a state of the mind,” says LaVacca.
Noticing a pattern? Studies have found that yoga “stimulates vagal afferents” and increases parasympathetic nervous activity. This could be because of the emphasis on breathing, the meditative aspect, or the fact that it’s slow, low-intensity exercise.
If meditating and yoga just don’t come easily for you, switch on your favorite comedy. Laughter stimulates diaphragmatic breathing, which activates the vagus nerve. That’s one of the reasons why laughter can cause people to urinate: going to the bathroom works the parasympathetic system, too.
5) Foam Rolling and Massage
Some research suggests that deep tissue massage and self myofascial release techniques, like foam rolling, can reduce stress and increase the activation of parasympathetic nerves, which is a marker of vagal tone.
[Interested in picking up a foam roller? Check out our list of the best foam rollers for your needs!]
6) Eat Your Minerals
Sufficient intakes of zinc and magnesium have both been linked to healthy vagal function. Eat your greens and your protein.
7) Chewing Gum
The parasympathetic state is sometimes called “feed and breed” — the body likes to be in a relaxed state when it’s time to eat. Harvard Medical School notes that chewing gum stimulates the vagus nerve, which has branches all throughout the body, including the bowels. That’s why gum chewing might also be useful for abdominal surgery patients, as it may release hormones that stimulate bowel activity.
The vagus nerve is the chill nerve, so when you need laser focus for a work task or a workout, you might not want to be parasympathetic. As LaVacca puts it, “I do not want to think happy thoughts and deep breathe before running into a WOD.”
It’s also important to note that just about anything can be interpreted as a stressor to the body: social relationships, certain foods, sleep, overtraining, under training, the list goes on. The point is that it’s way, way easier to put yourself in “fight or flight” mode than “rest and recover,” so remember these strategies to help your nervous system rediscover the lost art of chilling out. Your recovery will improve, and better workouts will follow.